[Preface: I've been writing this since February of this year, and as is fairly standard with loss of all shapes and sizes, I've been perpetually processing, feeling, grieving and healing since then, and just never felt as if the time were right to post this, until now. Until today. I'm not sure why today of all days. Perhaps because I'm missing him, and thinking about the way the upcoming holidays will lose some of their shape and will have to re-form anew without him. Perhaps because as we approach another Thanksgiving, I'm feeling grateful for so many nouns in my life, those past and present and forever held dear.]
“I don’t know what to do right now.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I’m not sure. But bustling back to work, preparing for the week ahead: it all feels like too much, feels too soon. Nothing ever stops. Not really. Not ever. Why can’t everything stop? For just a little while?”
It’s a hypothetical question, of course. One I ask myself whenever someone dies, and thus one I’ve asked myriad times already this life. He looks at me with sympathetic eyes and says nothing. He knows he doesn’t need to. This is a time for saying nothing. A time for long embraces, knowing glances, fingers interlaced and kisses planted on foreheads and cheeks and noses.
Home from a whirlwind weekend so solid and so surreal, I want to grab a book, to lose myself in words and worlds I don’t need to create, all too quickly realizing I don’t own any books written about him. Realizing all too surely: I only want to read about him. About his life. About our lives. About the way he changed all of them. About the way he changed all of us.
I want to sit around a fire, listening to my mom and her three brothers tell stories about their father, all of our faces alight with shadows from flames dancing alongside tiny puffs of late February wind.
Remember: That’s what I want to do.
I want to remember the way my sister cried [suddenly, gasping for air and understanding, her voice raw and wounded] when I first broke the news he’d left us in the early morning hours [Sunday, February 24th, 4:40 am], Matt and I curled against each other in the room directly below where my grandmother and grandfather laid hand-in-hand all night, just like they had every night for the fifty-nine years prior. My grandmother unlocked her fingers from his just long enough to visit the bathroom. Walking back into the room she heard nothing, and knew. We heard my uncle’s footsteps fifteen minutes later, and we knew, too. Holding the phone to my ear, straining to untangle her words amid her much more audible sobs, for the briefest of moments she was my little sister again, and I found myself remembering what it meant to be her big sister, found myself reaching through the phone to hold her, reassuring her Grandpa was okay, and so was she, so were we.
I want to remember how he, autodidact in myriad realms, taught me how to change a tire, how to build a catapult, how to ride my first-ever bike. How he taught himself to build anything and nearly everything: a garage with solar panels; a pool in the backyard the year I was born where once grass only grew; my car’s front-end after a boy nearly totaled it in high school; an additional bathroom in the basement because my grandmother asked for one.
I want to remember the way he looked in his cowboy boots: regal and rustic and completely comfortable. Boyhood years spent working as a farm-hand lent itself to him routinely telling us how he preferred boots to any other form of footwear. At 6’2″ barefoot, donning those boots meant he towered over most of us, especially over my grandmother’s petite, 5’4″ frame. He wore them behind baseball diamonds while my cousins swung bats and dove after line-drives, and as my sister squatted behind the plate in catcher’s gear that always amusingly seemed to significantly outweigh her. He wore them to cross-country invites and track meets, and no matter how loud the crowd roared I could always discern his voice in my right ear as I rounded the the last bit of 200-meter corner, my legs pulsing like pistons toward the final straightaway, my arms pumping feverishly and him yelling my name, reminding me to breathe. Typically I would see him, too. For the briefest of seconds, but always there, looming above the fence, his frame perpetually devoid of bleachers. He rarely sat. He wore those boots to my basketball games, too, and they contributed to a near-perfect visual pairing: Him standing on the sidelines as if he just walked off a ranch, yelling “Attagirl!” while my grandmother sat in the stands and instructed every shot I took to “GET IN THERE!”
A solid and paternal force ["snell" the adjective aptly means active, witty, severe], his own children would never have deemed him “gentle.” Not, that is, until his grandchildren began arriving. He had nicknames for all of us, names we grew accustomed to hearing tumbling out of his mouth as he cheered from the sidelines at myriad sporting events, or as he sternly reminded us not to run around the pool: Kylie [my cousin who now has a daughter of his own] and Ry-Guy [my cousin Ryan; Kyle's little brother]; he routinely called my sister and me by our full first and middle names, which was something no one else in my family ever did unless we were in serious trouble, save for Grandma Ladish, who to this day always addresses me as “Kerri Anne.” When he wasn’t speaking our full names with affection, he equally affectionately called Theresa “Squirt” or “Sis,” and me “Pumpkin.”
I want to remember Wednesday nights, so many nights, spent on his lap in his formidably-sized leather chair [brown first and then black], the back-door feet away from us and open, the screen door allowing the evening’s breezes to blow through the living room as he stroked my hair and I dozed in and out of sleep. But I especially want to remember Wednesday nights [among the little-known-facts about my parents, they: were married while playing a round of golf; once won a "Dirty Dancing" contest at a local bar; for years belonged to a weekly bowling league, replete with personally-owned balls and bags and polos], when we watched Grandma dominate Wheel of Fortune and when I unintentionally memorized the Unsolved Mysteries theme song, watching it weekly from the safe-haven of his shoulders.
I want to remember how pictures I found of him long after he ditched the epic sideburns made me laugh aloud, thinking how much he resembled Elvis.
I want to remember summers spent poolside in his shadow; the way his skin would handsomely tan before any of ours, even as you would rarely catch him sitting [rarer still to catch him swimming], and even as the back patio remained consistently littered with bodies employing the assistance of oils and tube-tops and ridiculous(ly ill-advised) UV-magnifying sun screens.
I want to remember his camouflaged sleeping bag: The one I used to sleep in whenever I stayed the night at my grandparents’ house, even though there were beds for me. I preferred the sleeping bag because it smelled like him.
I want to remember the way a brain aneurysm should have killed him, but didn’t, and the way a subsequent Thanksgiving-day stroke took most of his words and his ability to use the right side of his body, forever humbling a man who once stood so tall, so strong. More than that I want to remember how it never took his spirit or his wit, how it never touched the kindness in his eyes or stopped the laughter from erupting from his belly whenever my uncles or cousins would regale him with their latest stories. The way it never stopped his face from lighting up as if struck with volts of electricity whenever my little sister walked into the room. Where once he wore bifocals, after the stroke he suddenly had perfect vision, literally and metaphorically. He saw all of us completely, in some of our finest and darkest moments, and loved us unconditionally. Loved us boldly, often without the aid of any words at all. I want to remember the day I was hurting and doing my best to hide it, and, with enough chaos in the house, for once my poker face had actually been working; no one but him had noticed. He rolled his wheelchair over to me, grabbed my hand and held it tightly as I quietly cried.
I want to remember that even after the stroke, even after losing so much, he enthusiastically watched my cousin’s football games and soccer matches from the sidelines, gave my dress his approval before I went to prom, watched my sister walk down the aisle, and perpetually teased me for getting my nose pierced and wearing sandals no matter the weather forecast.
I want especially to remember the way he loved my grandmother, and the way she loved him. The way he needed to be at home with her just as she needed to be at home with him. For almost fifteen years she took care of him in the house where they raised their four children, day-by-day becoming a nurse by necessity and by choice. She was what he needed, what he wanted. Despite their most difficult days, they held hands every night, kissed each other every morning, and grew a second language between them like a forest thick with meaning only they could decipher.
I want to remember the way he laughed at Iggy as much as I did, and the way that dog would refuse to sit on anyone else’s lap if Grandpa’s was available. Whenever I stayed there, Iggy slept atop the covers between my grandfather’s knees, and no amount of coaxing could convince him he wanted to sleep anywhere else.
I want to remember how much Grandpa like country music, even as I tend to loathe it. Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson, Paul Overstreet–they’ll forever remind me of him, will forever remind me of Grandma sitting alongside him in their sky-blue Camry, or in the truck my grandmother let me drive once in the cemetery near their house ["What?" she asked my mother innocently when I once again failed at secret-keeping. "Who's she going to hurt? Everyone there's already dead."], or in whatever Grandpa happened to be driving–the two of them holding hands and singing along to songs via cassette tape, songs always seemingly written exactly for and about them, about their love and about our family, Grandpa’s hands tapping along to steel guitars on the steering wheel. I want to remember that I listened to country stations in the car for two weeks after he died, my tears falling alongside laughable lyrics.
I want to remember the only time I ever saw him cry was in 1995, at my dad’s funeral. I sat with him and my grandmother during the memorial service, my face buried into his side as he wrapped his arms around me and held me as I cried and cried and cried. I barely watched the service. I didn’t want to see a picture of my father where my father himself should be standing, eyes dancing mischievously, the sides of his face upturned into a smile resembling my own. I watched my grandfather’s boots instead.
I want to remember saying goodbye to him, and the gratitude I felt in being able to watch him recognize me, and watch him recognize Matt, and watch him smile as I felt him squeeze my hand for the briefest of moments, knowing it took painful effort for him to move at all.
I want to remember all of us standing in the freshly falling snow at his freshly-dug grave site, fingers and noses and breath iced by the chill in the air as we cried and laughed and remembered him, together. All of us imperfect, some of us quarreling, but all of us together for the first time in a long time. Together for maybe the last time. But together. Because of him. Because of the man he was to all of us. Because of the man he will always be to all of us.
I want to remember all of it, always.
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